When wildlife photographers think about booking a photography tour which focuses on taking pictures of grizzly bears in their natural habitat, one of the first locations that comes to mind is Alaska. But why is Alaska one of the best places in the world to see and photograph bears and what specifically makes the perfect Alaska wildlife photography tour for bears.
Alaska is a huge state in America and in some ways, it seems more like a separate country with its own special identity; borne from many adventurous men and women coming to this northerly state in search of adventure. Because a lot of Alaska does not have transport links – particularly main road arteries – the locals have a pioneer spirit and often built their own homes in remote coastal communities; with the only access being by boat. Many of these communities were settled due to the incredible fishing opportunities; in particular the vast salmon runs (numbering in their tens of millions) which provide an annual feast for bears and humans alike.
In the last 20 to 30 years some of these pristine wilderness areas were given national park status and the early forms of wildlife tourism focused on spectacular bear viewing in locations like Katmai National Park and Brooks Falls began. Brooks Falls became world famous as the best place to see bears catching salmon in Alaska, but actually there are many more jewels in Alaska wildlife heritage.
July and August are the best months to photograph bears catching salmon in Alaska and Brooks Falls and the McNeil river sanctuary are two of the most famous places to observe bears fishing for salmon. Unfortunately, due to previously uncontrolled tourism at McNeil River - which put the lives of both humans and bears at risk - a visit here is only possible through the lottery system run by the Alaska department of fish and game. Bear viewing at Brooks Falls is possible, but if you want to stay at Brooks Falls Lodge at the ‘best time of year’ - not always easy to predict now due to global warming – you need to book at least a year and a half in advance. For more detailed information on bear viewing at Brooks Falls Lodge, check out our personal blog on the Brooks Falls experience.
On a good day at both McNeil and Brooks Falls, wildlife photographers will enjoy seeing the salmon run in its full glory and observe multiple bears looking for the best fishing spots on the river. This often means bears will stand on the falls themselves, or below the falls in order to catch or trap the fish as they fight the strong current in the river. Obviously, the largest male bears tend to dominate the river and get to pick the best places for catching the salmon. With a little brightness and the weather behaving itself, you can expect to get some epic photographs of bears catching salmon in their mouths above the falls. However, Brooks Falls can get busy in peak season and you will be ‘rotated’ through the viewing platforms in order to provide fair opportunity to enjoy the bears for all visitors.
If you have ever visited Alaska and enjoyed a bear safari there, you will notice that there is a big difference between ‘controlled’ bear viewing at a location such as Brooks Falls, which is run and managed by the park authorities and a more intimate and natural approach to bear viewing pioneered by Alaska wildlife lodges, such as the world famous Katmai wilderness lodge. At Brooks Falls, the authorities regulate where you can go – this often involves board walks and designated trails – and how long you spend with the bears. Whereas at Katmai wilderness lodge, you walk into the home of the bears with an expert local bear guide and are allowed to photograph the bears completely free of manmade structures – often for a full 8 to 9 hours; taking a packed lunch in the field (this is eaten in the boat or in a safe bear free area!). Generally, the group sizes for this type of Alaska bear photography tours are much smaller (around 6-8 persons) and your senses are more heightened by ‘entering’ the world of the bears on their terms. There is none of the detachment you sometimes feel on a bear viewing platform in locations such as Knight Inlet and Brooks Falls. We have just 2 spaces remaining on our Kodiak and Katmai National Park bear photography tour with Trai Anfield.
We have been visiting Alaska since 2007 and designing bespoke Alaska wildlife photography tours ever since. Our goal is to work with you to match your aims and ambitions for the tour with one of the many superb bear viewing places in Alaska; all of which we have personally visited. Alaska bear tours are not a cheap wildlife holiday and that includes the fact that the international flights from Europe can also be expensive. However, if you are looking at visiting the best place in the world to photography brown bears, then this is the safari for you.